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Alright, folks, I follow the belief that you should try to give your players chances for their characters to shine, which means letting them do what they do best and letting them do cool and exciting things. For example, if you have a rogue who likes to sneak, every now and then you
should try to give him a chance to sneak in somewhere.
I wanted to come up with an elaborate heist scenario comparable to Ocean’s Eleven. But I suck at complicated plots, so instead I came up with a simpler “sneak in, sneak out” caper. But I need help to make it challenging—but not too challenging. Here’s the scenario:
I have four 10th level player characters, (Normally five PCs plus an NPC female cleric of Desna, but for various reasons the next few sessions will only involve four PCs). They are:
A female dwarven Ranger (with the shape shifter archetype from the Advanced Player’s Guide) who focuses on light crossbow and has a wolf animal companion;
A male human Inquisitor of Cayden Cailean;
A male half-elf Rogue 9/Wizard 1; and
A female elven Wizard (Universal, but strongly favors evocation).
(The PC who is absent is a male human fighter)
The half-elf and the elf were originally from Magnimar where they worked as a sort of a husband and wife Robin Hood duo—stealing from unscrupulous wealthy people and giving to the poor. Both enjoy doing stealthy, sneaky sorts of things when they get a chance. In so doing, they earned the enmity of a mid level Sczarni boss named Milo Scarnetti. As part of their back-story, before the campaign started they had bested Milo and left him naked, bound and gagged on a ship bound for Absalom.
Their back-story has nothing to do with the campaign, but it occasionally crops up. Most recently, a couple of months ago (in game time) the entire party was secretly drugged and woke up naked and locked up on a pirate ship bound for the Flesh Fairs of Okeno. It sounds heavy-handed, I know, but I know my players and they enjoyed it—especially since they ended up escaping, trouncing the pirates and claiming the ship as their own (which they have since turned over to some of their followers to engage in smuggling/legitimate commerce).
Naturally, it was Milo Scarnetti who orchestrated the abduction and now they’re looking for some payback. They are trying to tread carefully, though, because the fighter’s (NPC) sister is the leader of a local group of cat burglars and they don’t want to make trouble for her. (She doesn’t normally adventure with the party, but she is helpful from time to time). They decided that the best way to get back at Milo would be if they could implicate him and have his own family/organization (the Sczarni) turn on him.
Last session, I had the sister, Natalya, tell the party that Gradon Scarnetti (one of the Sczarni elite in Magnimar) is expecting a delivery by ship which should arrive the following night. The item is a painting by a famous painter from Absalom—it was a portrait of a Scarnetti matriarch, and happens to have been the last thing the guy ever painted, because he died under mysterious circumstances shortly afterward. The painting has a lot of intrinsic value both because of the painter and because it was his last work. But it has even greater value to the Scarnetti family due to the specific subject. Gradon very much wants the painting to display in the Scarnetti family Villa. The painting will remain on board the ship overnight (because . . . reasons?) and will be unloaded the following morning.
Natalya proposed they sneak on board the ship, steal the painting, then sneak into Milo’s mansion and place it in his vault. Her underlings have also been spreading misinformation on the streets that Milo has been skimming off the top and not turning over the family’s fair share of his ill-gotten gains. The notion is that when the painting is discovered to be missing, Gradon will be angry, will search for it (with magical aid?) and when he finds it in Milo’s possession, it will not go well for Milo.
What I like about the plan is that it requires them to sneak into two different locations. I’ve also planted the seed that Milo has a unique set of lock picks, and if one of them was left on the ship, it would help to sell the notion of his treachery. So if they want to do that, they would first have to sneak into Milo’s place, steal the lockpicks, sneak back out, then go steal the painting and sneak back in. I guess I’m going for a vibe similar to the computer game "Thief".
Here are my concerns:
I want this to be a challenge, but I also want them to feel like capable adventurers. They should have a chance to feel like badasses. This isn’t the main plotline, just a brief interlude. So I need it to feel realistically challenging, yet easy enough that they can pull it off with some panache. In my world, 10th level characters are fairly rare and they should feel like they are somewhat extraordinary. I don’t really want the opposition to be more than 6th or 7th level (maybe 8th at the most), but I want them to behave logically and I want to maintain verisimilitude.
At that level, considering both Milo and the people shipping the painting, what are some precautions they might take, knowing that there are people out there who might want to steal from them and who might be able to: fly, turn invisible, teleport, etc.? One thing that occurred to me is that on the bottom deck of the ship (where the painting is, naturally), there could be a passageway enclosed at both ends by beaded curtains and the floor could be covered in sawdust. The notion is that if someone—even an invisible someone—wants to pass through, he will find it difficult to do without revealing his presence. Maybe there are guards there who have potions of see invisibility. If they see the curtains moving or footprints in the sawdust, they pop the potions and draw their weapons. Is that too hard? Not hard enough? I want it to be possible for the PCs do this without getting into combat if they’re smart about it.
What about at Milo’s house? What sort of precautions help to sell the idea that this guy is prepared, without necessarily thwarting the PCs?
Any advice is welcome.
This sounds like a really interesting scenario you have going so far.
I'm not sure the NPCs would need elaborate measures to deal with invisibility. A locked door and a guard dog are traditional defenses even without considering magical threats, and both of them are quite effective against invisible intruders.
Teleportation is a much trickier form of attack to defend against. However, I'm not sure you really need to. Teleporting into the ship itself would just be guesswork unless you had significant prior knowledge of its interior. And if you're interested, here's an interesting rule from Skull & Shackles about teleporting to ships:
Because ships are constantly in motion, the caster of spells of the teleportation subschool must have line of sight to teleport onto a ship. Otherwise, a caster must scry upon a particular ship first, then immediately teleport to the scryed destination. Any delay in casting means the ship has moved from its scryed location and the spell fails.
Besides, if 10th level characters are rare, I doubt people in general, even the rich, would commonly be alert for teleporting enemies. They would just get used to locking their most valuable objects in safes and employing guards to watch for intruders, whether of the mundane or magical variety.
Mundane defensive measures will give the PCs a lot of freedom in their planning: sentries, patrols, archers, traps (gasp!), and the like. If you think it would be interesting, you could make the location and strength of light sources a significant part of the scenario. You could have occasional spellcaster guards using Detect Magic - it can be cast at will, and even if PCs are invisible or just plain using stealth their items still show up. You can equip some of these guards with wands or scrolls of fairly powerful spells, for use in emergencies. You can use low-level defensive spells as they're applicable - Obscure Object if the painting's being moved unobtrusively, Crimson Confession if there's reason to expect a theft, Alarm on important areas (but use it sparingly, as I discuss later).
In terms of setting up the encounter as a whole, here's the best advice I can give you from personal experience: In a scenario like this, players aren't going to feel awesome by defeating their enemies, no matter whether they crush them or barely scrape by. What's going to make them feel awesome is coming up with crazy and devious plans, having moments of total panic, and improvising their way into some form of a success.
The point being: make sure to center the plot around the players' choices and the situations that come as a result of those choices, so that they know this is their time to shine, and it's not about some NPC with an elaborate defense plan.
With that in mind, you'll probably want to focus on low-level enemies, maybe 3-6 range (remember, the PCs won't know they're low-level). The threat doesn't have to be the threat of dying at the hands of the people in the area, the threat of being discovered and caught is just as bad.
Signal horns and spells like Alarm can effective plot devices, not to mention valuable defensive measures. But be wary of using them too soon - as soon as you do, it's no longer a stealth mission; it tends to become either a chase scene or a battle against many weaker enemies, neither of which is very fun. If the PCs try, let them fight a small group of enemies without bringing the sneaking to an end. If they mess up really badly, maybe consider bringing in a significant NPC or a powerful opponent to make things more interesting than just fighting or fleeing a horde of guards.
Once the PCs have gotten to their destination, this is no longer an issue, because a raised alarm will just create added pressure as they race to get the item and escape before their identities are discovered.
One last, random thought: Ultimate Equipment has an entry for buying stirges, found here. It mentions indoor defense for rich clients as a cover reason for buying them for illicit purposes. But what if they were actually used for that purpose by Milo? They're trainable, they can fly, they have darkvision and scent. They won't be that dangerous to the PCs, even in large numbers, but they'll deal some Con damage, attract some attention, and definitely add to the mood.
Just an idea.
Sentries with See Invisibility, Invisibility Purge, and bags of flour are decent invisibility defenses.
Also consider mission-impossible style crawl spaces, like under floorboards and on the outside edge of buildings. Have them do bungee rope dropping from ship masts and silently Stone Shaping walls. If there are guards, space some of them out infrequently, out of view from each other. Let your players Batman around and take out individual ones, making the remaining ones more scared. In the places you want your players to avoid guards, have them all in view of each other, but not in easy attack distance. Have some standing directly in front of doors and such.